Getting Paid to Help Yourself

As I mentioned in an earlier blog post, we regularly pay community representatives small per diems to turn up to meetings about the project. This is not just for meetings for which they may need to leave the comfort of their homes and travel to, but also for meetings actually in the villages where they live. In common with other organisations and projects we were initially extremely reluctant to pay these allowances – one shouldn’t have to pay people to participate in projects which are designed to help them – but fairly early on we concluded our progress would be greatly facilitated if we did, since otherwise we were faced with the first hour of every meeting being taken up by a renewed discussion as to why we were not paying per diems. Also other organisations and projects operating in the same area were paying per diems*, and we rather suffered by comparison (especially if there were multiple events happening at the same time).

Quite apart from the practical considerations, there are various ways to view this situation:

1. Our beneficiaries are busy farmers who would otherwise be working out in their fields, and/or

2. They are skeptical about the as yet unrealised benefits of our project, and are reluctant to give up their time for something that might not work, and/or

3. They are greedy ingrates who know if they don’t cooperate our project will fail, so we’d better pay up.

I think there is some truth in all three views. Certainly if we hadn’t paid up it is debatable whether we would have achieved the things we have. The communities also can, and do point out that our staff (and the staff from our local government partners) are paid per diems for their work, per diems which are 5-10 times what we pay community representatives. From time to time, a particularly pushy individual or group may even press us to increase the rate of payment. Going by local rates of pay in the villages, we are more than adequately compensating people for their time, and such requests do rather come across as naked greed. On the other hand, such payments make up a pretty small fraction of our total outgoings; for the most part we can afford such increases.

The real difficulty will come when we try to wean the communities off such payments, which is the argument most often deployed against making any kind of payments in the first place. The good thing is that at least some of the community representatives we work with recognise and are already looking forward to the time when they are making enough money for them to cover their own allowances.

Per diem culture is deeply engrained here and, despite the regular laments, is unlikely to go away any time soon. In many ways it is only fair that community members should get in on the act, especially when we bring them our project (rather than the other way round). It doesn’t automatically fatally undermine project sustainability; communities can recognise when the good times have ceased, and still continue with something they think is worthwhile, but it can make it rather difficult to evaluate the motivations of project beneficiaries during a project’s lifetime. It also torpedoes any romantic notions the wet-behind-the-ears development worker may have that the beneficiaries they so want to help, actually want to be helped badly enough that they’ll do so without needing to be paid for it.

However, it is not necessarily at odds with recent development thinking. Cash incentives (known as Conditional Cash Transfers) such as those developed by Brazil for sensible decision making by households (e.g. to send your children to school, or getting them immunized) are proving quite effective (if not quite the panacea that some think) and are rapidly gaining in popularity. Thus whilst left-leaning development theorists decry any development projects that have not been requested, and preferably designed, by the intended beneficiaries, pragmatists are getting results by combining their paternalist insights with hard cash incentives. Maybe Western government should consider paying their overweight citizens to go to the gym?

* Many organisations and projects deny that they pay any kind of allowances, but round here they all do it, under one guise (e.g. ‘refreshments’) or another.


5 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by HB on July 15, 2010 at 12:17 pm

    The per-diem culture is also deeply engrained here in Malawi – even for the government. We recently held an event on behalf of the government (i.e. presented by the Ministry of Health) and had to pay allowances for the ministry staff to turn up to their own event, oh and of course the £40 on flowers to sit in front of the Minister’s chair! Journalists also have to have their allowances or they won’t come and report on your event.

    As you say though you won’t really achieve anything without paying them and if they didn’t receive the allowances the civil servants and journalists would have a hard time surviving on their actual salaries… I’d love to see the back of them though.


    • yes. and when done at government level, when you’re basically paying someone extra just to do their job, you have to ask yourself: what is the difference between a per diem and a kick back?


  2. There’s also a fourth view of such payments:

    4. When you are paying representatives of the beneficiaries (rather than the beneficiaries themselves) its equitable to see them receive something for the fact that they are putting in more work than everyone else.


    • Yes. Except that they are getting paid more than the wider community would pay for them. This creates perverse incentives, in particular people seeking office in order to access the monetary benefits of office rather than the responsibilities it entails, ref. Kenyan MPs being some of the highest paid in the world (and, I believe, the highest paid in relation to average per capita income in a country). The rest of the community also understand this, hence the tendency to rotate their representatives so that someone else can get the chance to ‘eat’ (aka buggin’s turn) rather than on the basis of performance. This rotation imposes additional costs on us as we have to train up a new bunch of community representatives. Of course we do not entirely object to training more people, but it does start to turn the project into a cash cow to be milked rather than a collaborative effort to alleviate poverty in the community. Shaking off this attitude takes time and, importantly, results that the community can really believe in.


  3. I guess I think of different rules for different “levels”. Mine would be:

    MPs: no additional payments.

    Community: payments that the community and external referees consider “fair pay” for the work… in other words at a level that they’re not losing, but they’re not winning either. In Indonesia, at least, at this level there is no incentive to churn the community reps. And when I write grant agreements, this is the level at which I pitch the administrators remuneration. This level is controllable.

    The middle level—the public servants—are somewhat more problematic. In places like Vietnam, Indonesia, and Lao PDR, public service salaries are 1/10th of private sector equivalents. In Vietnam, its official policy now for public servants to have private sector jobs on the side. In Lao PDR, many public servants work two jobs. None of these situations are ideal, but the distortion comes not from “salary supplements” or “tea money”, but from the vast differentials between public service and private sector remuneration. Raising public service pays to more practical levels is sometimes discussed, but the fact is that the national budget can rarely span the gap.

    In this middle area, it’s a big ball of mud, and no-one seems to have come up with a solution.


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